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  • Julian Dowse

40 Years On

Last Monday was the fortieth anniversary of the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain from the camping ground at Ayers Rock as it was then known. Ensuing events culminated in Azaria’s mother, Lindy, being convicted of the murder of her daughter and serving nearly three years in prison before her release and the subsequent annulling of her conviction. The controversy about whether a steely woman of faith killed her child, or whether a dingo was responsible for its death, galvanised and divided the nation. The Chamberlain case of the 1980s evoked the same interest and passions as the recent conviction and acquittal, on appeal, of a man of faith, Cardinal Pell.

It is important to remember the bizarre circumstances that led to Lindy Chamberlain’s exoneration.

The body of her daughter, Azaria, was never found. The Crown’s case was wholly circumstantial. What was found near the campsite was the jumpsuit Azaria was wearing when she was placed in her bed inside her tent. However, what was not found with the jumpsuit was the matinee jacket that Azaria was also wearing when put into her bed.

The Crown argued that the reason that the matinee jacket was not found alongside the jumpsuit was simple. They submitted that Lindy Chamberlain had stuffed the jacket in a camera bag to help dispose of Azaria after she had cut her throat in the front seat of the family car.

In early 1986, just over three years after Lindy’s conviction, a British tourist jumped to his death from Ayers Rock. When his body was found, Azaria Chamberlain’s matinee jacket was found close by. That evening Lindy Chamberlain was released from her Darwin prison. It took the intended death of one person to establish the innocence of someone wrongfully convicted of the intended killing of another. Truth is stranger than fiction.

One cannot help but wonder what Lindy Chamberlain makes of the last forty years. Her former husband, Pastor Michael Chamberlain died in early 2017. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1991. Both Lindy and Michael Chamberlain remarried.

“Forty years on” are the first words of the first line of Harrow School’s famous song of reminiscence about one’s school:

Forty years on, when afar and asunder

Parted are those who are singing today,

When you look back, and forgetfully wonder

What you were like in your work and your play,

Well, what were Australians like in their work and play in 1980 and how significantly as our nation changed since then? In what ways have we remained the same?

Here are my eight signposts of significant national change and the nation’s two great positions of status quo ante of the last forty years.


1. The changed role of women:

Lindy Chamberlain appealed against her conviction to the High Court, where by a 3-2 majority her appeal was disallowed. Not one of the judges that presided at her trial and appeals was female. In 1980, Australia only had one female Supreme Court Justice. Her name was Roma Mitchell and she sat on South Australia’s Supreme Court. She was appointed in 1965 and when she retired in 1983 as the Court’s Chief Justice, she was still the solitary female Supreme Court Justice in the country.

Our first female High Court Justice, Mary Gaudron, was appointed in 1987. Now three of the seven High Court Justices are women, including its Chief Justice.

The ACT had Australia’s first female State or Territory government leader when Rosemary Follett became leader in 1989. Carmen Lawrence became the nation’s first female State Premier in Western Australia in 1990. Every State and Territory has now had a female leader-some more than one- with the exception of South Australia, which is ironic given South Australia was the first colony to give women the vote. In New South Wales and Queensland both major political parties are led by women. Women have become both our Prime Minister and Governor-General with Julia Gillard and Quentin Bryce serving in the roles at the same time from 2010-2013. Tasmania’s Legislative Assembly now has more female MPs than male.

No Church in 1980 ordained women as Ministers. Perth’s current Anglican Archbishop, Kay Goldsworthy, is the first female to hold that senior office within the Anglican Church.

The notions of a woman’s place have radically changed. The female participation rate in the labour force has surged, but surveys show that most men have not responded in kind by undertaking a greater share of home duties. The dilemma for many Australian women of 2020 is not whether they have the opportunity to work, but rather how they balance child-rearing and childcare alongside a career , especially in Sydney and Melbourne where two salaries are needed to purchase a modest suburban residence.

2. Greater recognition of Indigenous Australia

In 1980 Ayers Rock was the name given to the colonial explorer who discovered the nation’s famous outcrop. Tourists clambered all over the rock without hesitation. ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremonies were unheard of. Sporting leagues around the country had not even begun to think of anti-vilification policies to combat racial abuse on sporting fields.

Evonne Cawley won her second Wimbledon title in 1980 and commentators still referred to lapses in her concentration as examples of her “going walkabout.”

The common law of Australia still upheld the terra nullius doctrine, which held that Australia was vacant land upon the arrival of the British in 1788. This doctrine remained until being overruled by the High Court in 1992. There was no NAIDOC week and Royal Commissions into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the Stolen Generation and the nation’s subsequent apology were figments of the imagination.

Ayers Rock became known as Uluru in the mid-1980s after its ownership was granted to its traditional owners. There has been a profound change in popular recognition of a range of issues that affect indigenous Australians.

We wait to see how extensively recognition of Aboriginal people will be sought to be included in our Constitution in a forthcoming referendum. Will the Uluru Statement from the Heart published in 2017 be fully recognised?

The gaps in key areas of social, educational and medical standards between the indigenous and non-indigenous remain, but so many more people are aware of them.

3. The overthrow of our established economic structures

The Chamberlains’ Holden Torana was one of the key items of evidence in their trial. The Crown argued that stains underneath the dashboard were consistent with a spray of foetal blood, left after Lindy Chamberlain had cut her daughter’s throat. Later tests confirmed that the stains were caused by a ‘sound deadener’ spray.

I suspect the Torana was made in Australia. Well, Australian made cars are now part of history. In the years since 1980 our tariff walls have been knocked down, our centralised wage fixation system abandoned, our dollar floated, and banks deregulated. Most of us buy clothing, textiles and footwear that are manufactured overseas, most likely being labelled, ‘Fabrique en Chine.’

Australia now has a Goods and Services Tax as well as a Capital Gains tax. For a brief while it had a carbon tax. Membership of unions has fallen to record low levels. The irony is that many of these structural reforms were introduced by a former President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Bob Hawke who entered Federal Parliament in October, 1980. At that time Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were awaiting a coroner’s inquiry into the disappearance of their daughter, which in 1981 found that a dingo had taken their daughter.

4. The end of Social and family life as we knew it

In 1980 barely a shop was open on a Sunday and rarely were sporting events held on the Sabbath. It would have been considered a universal heresy to consider playing a sporting event on Good Friday. Since then the secularisation of our society has almost become complete. There is almost nothing one cannot do on a Sunday. FM radio entered our lives in the mid-1980s, along with the then miracle of a facsimile machine, before the computer chip ushered in the mobile phone, laptops, internet, e-mails, social media accounts, Facebook and, suddenly, our world was 24/7. The leisurely family Sunday roast lunch after church is no longer a common experience.

In 1980 people still found landline phone numbers in telephone directories and scoured large advertising sections of newspapers for their next job and/or a house to rent or buy. People still had to visit a bank to ensure cash was in the wallet for the weekend and cheques, along with most letters, were sent in the mail. No-one paid for a TV channel and many Australians had still not purchased a colour television since their introduction in the mid-1970s. Parliamentary debates were broadcast live on the ABC’s major metropolitan radio stations.

No-fault divorce was introduced into Australia from 1976. Since then, the nation’s divorce rate has steadily remained at close to 30% for first marriages and over 60% for second marriages. It seems, there is little triumph of hope over experience.

5. The emergence of the environment as a political totem

In 1980, the Greens Party did not exist at a Federal level. The Australian Democrats were “keeping the Bastards honest” in the Senate. Tasmania had flooded Lake Pedder in 1972 to generate more hydro-electricity; however, the mining of mineral sands from Queensland’s Fraser Island had been prevented. This was done by the High Court upholding the right of a Federal government Minister to consider environmental factors when deciding not to grant an export permit to the company wishing to mine the island in the Murphyores decision of 1976.

It was to be the seismic debate about the damming of the Franklin River in south-west Tasmania in the early 1980s that led to the emergence of the environment as an entrenched political issue in Australian politics.

On Wimbledon Men’s semi-finals day on 1st July, 1983, the High Court upheld legislation passed by the newly elected Hawke government to declare the south-west of Tasmania a World Heritage Area. Similar protection was given in subsequent years to the Daintree, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. Bob Brown, the leader of the movement to protect the Franklin River became a national political figure and his Greens Party became a crucial third wheel in Australia’s political machinery.

Even by the early 1990s the “hole in the ozone layer” and “climate change” were not universally recognised terms.

The loss of traditional industrial jobs caused by the protection of the Franklin River saw the Labor Party increase its urban vote, but lose supporters in its traditional heartland. That haemorrhage has not healed and is still being played out in debates about the party’s Climate Change policy.

6. Multiculturalism- it’s here to stay!

The SBS television channel first broadcast programmes in October, 1980. The Special Broadcasting Service was seen as a channel to cater for our many ‘new Australians’, whose post-war influence has become a permanent part of our cultural fabric. Our diets, our range of sports, our variety of neighbours and our school populations have all been radically changed by the polyglot that we have become.

Newton’s third law prevails once again. Having fought for decades to remain a ‘White Australia’, the equal and opposite reaction has seen the rapid emergence of one of the world’s most multicultural nations. In recent years, annual lists of Australia’s wealthiest citizens, as crass as they are, have confirmed the enterprise and effort that many of these migrants have given to their new home.

7. A gentler and kinder set of moral values

Not many of the strictures from the early 1980s remain.

At the time of Azaria’s disappearance male homosexual sex was a criminal offence in all States except South Australia. Victoria decriminalised the offence in December, 1980, the Northern Territory in 1983, New South Wales in 1984, Western Australia in 1989, Queensland in 1990 and Tasmania in 1997.

The Federal Marriage Act still did not have a definition of marriage, so unthinkable that it could be other than between a man and a woman.

Disparaging remarks were still made about ‘de-facto’ couples who “lived in sin”.

The notion of illegitimacy and children born outside of wedlock being called “bastards” meant adoption in Australia was freely available compared to today.

A “tranny” was a pint-sized radio that one clung to one’s ear to listen to Bert Bryant call the races from Melbourne.

People might have been talked others as being a bit “nervy”, but anxiety, depression, ADHD, bi-polar disorder were not topics of community discussion. Asylums still existed that Australians euphemistically called “funny farms.”

Men barely changed nappies. There was no paid maternity leave. People still had a “gay” old day on a Sunday drive.

8. Greater recognition of the disabled

Anyone who was at school in the early 1980s or has since taught at a School where classrooms were built in that era can vouch for the fact that no consideration whatsoever was giving to the plight of the physically disabled. Entrance ramps and lifts did not exist either outside or inside school buildings. After all, if you were either physically or mentally disabled, sorry let’s use the lexicon of 1980, “retarded” to a degree that required special assistance, you would be attending a “special school.”

The first Paralympics were held at the Rome Olympics of 1960. The Commonwealth Games hosted similar events from 1962-1974 but were then disbanded before a fully integrated programme of sports for the disabled was re-introduced in 1994. The disabled are no longer “out of sight and out of mind.”

However, two great qualities remain the same:

1. The place of sport in our psyche

In 1980 Australia was still smarting from having failed to win a solitary gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The Federal government ordered an inquiry into this national embarrassment which led to the construction of Canberra’s Australian Institute of Sport. The biggest political debate in Australia in 1980 was whether or not Australia should attend the Moscow Olympics of that year or join a Western boycott in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December, 1979.

Since then, the grip of sport on the national psyche has only increased through saturation television coverage, increased professionalism and sports betting. We forgive our sporting heroes all sorts of transgressions that we would not accept in others; think Wayne Carey, Andrew Johns and Shane Warne.

Our nation’s sense of self seems to depend to some degree on whether we hold the Ashes. Sporting dominance over our imperial forebear seems more important to most than complete political independence, as seen in the result of the 1999 Republic referendum.

The Melbourne Cup still fixates us, but unlike in the 1980s it is rarely won by a locally bred horse. Sadly, what has not changed since 1980 is that we have not produced an Australian Open tennis singles champion. Our last Olympic male track gold medallist was Ralph Doubell in 1968. Thank goodness for our female hurdlers, decathletes, Cathy Freeman and our soaring Steve Hooker! The absurd amount of money paid to our professional AFL, NRL players and to soccer and basketball players, especially those playing overseas, has led to a ridiculous intensity developing in junior league and school sports games, as parents sool over the sidelines encouraging the next wunderkind of a sport.

Premiers can say sorry for egregious errors in public health policy, think Gladys and the Ruby Princess or not say sorry, think Dan Andrews and the quarantine programme, and there is little apparent consequence.

However, If an AFL side loses three games in a row or their coach unintentionally breaches a AFL Football Hub biosphere regulation, there are calls for his scalp. I sometimes believe that there is more attention given to frame by frame analysis of video footage to determine whether a goal is valid in an AFL match, or whether a batsman is out leg before wicket, than there is to the Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination. I suspect most Australians will better recall “Sandpapergate” than “Watergate.”

2. Political inertia

Australians have not voted to change their Constitution since 1977 when they made the hardly radical decisions to make High Court justices retire at 70, allow people living in Territories to vote in referendums and to ensure that a casual vacancy in the Senate was filled by a Senator from the same political party.

Since then, nothing! Despite technological revolutions, a fundamental change in the financial relationship between our Federal and State governments, the internationalism of Australia’s responsibilities in regard to its internal and external environments , the emergence of areas of government responsibility that were not dreamt of when the Constitution was written- Sport, Aged Care, Universities, urban infrastructure, energy policy to name a few- and not forgetting the constitutional dilemmas raised by the pandemic, neither the Constitution nor its preamble has changed a syllable.

For over five years, our nation has failed to agree on a set of words to recognise Australia’s indigenous citizens in the Constitution.

A nation is only as strong as its weakest Constitutional link.

Back to the here and now.

This week New Zealand’s general election was postponed due to the nation’s second outbreak of the Corona virus. However, the American Presidential election is proceeding as scheduled. This week’s “virtual reality” Democratic Convention was a curious event. For a party wanting to “heal” , “unite” and “stop division”, there was a remarkable amount of divisive, angry and vitriolic rhetoric emerging from its speakers. After the angst, when come the detailed policies? Martina Navratilova once said, “You don’t have to hate your opponent to win”. Nevertheless, it appears that the Democrats believe cultivating fear and loathing is central to their chances of victory.

At least the two countries are having credible elections. Events in Belarus, the alleged poisoning of a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin and the murder of a human rights activist, Zara Alvarez, in the Philippines are reminders how easily democratic dissent is trampled.

The forthcoming US Open continues to be devalued by the withdrawal of highly ranked players, but will start, sans spectators, on August 31st.

Finally, it appears that a Calvinist curse is conspiring with the Covid pandemic to make the world less colourful. The organisers of the Tour de France announced this week that no longer will “podium girls” stand alongside the winner of individual stages of the event.

I always thought the podium girls were an elegant aspect of the event. They were neither scantily nor provocatively clad. Rather, they were soignee, wearing tres chic dresses that embodied the French penchant for haute couture. Now there is to be a man and a woman standing either side of the cyclist in a display of sexual neutrality. No more vive la difference! What next, the French eating EU-Brussels approved cheese made with pasteurised milk! Sacre bleu!

Julian Dowse

23rd August, 2020

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